Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, Trans. By Ruth L.C. Simms (NYRB Classics, 2003)
"Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of The Screw and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy's novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious.
Inspired by Bioy Casares's fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own. Greatly admired by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz, the novella helped to usher in Latin American fiction's now famous postwar boom. As the model for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Last Year in Marienbad, it also changed the history of film."
"A masterfully paced and intellectually daring plot. Like the best science fiction, of which this is an exemplar, Bioy's themes have become ever more relevant to a society beholden to image. It is this keenness of thought and expression that buttresses Borges's claim of the novella's perfection." — The Times
"The Argentine Adolfo Bioy Casares is an urban comedian, a parodist who turns fantasy and science fiction inside out to expose the banality of our scientific, intellectual, and especially erotic pretensions. Bioy makes us laugh at our foibles with an affectionate yet elegant touch.... Behind his post-Kafka, pre-Woody Allen sense of nonsense is a metaphysical vision, particularly of life's brevity and the slippery terrain of love." — Suzanne Jill Levine
"The Invention of Morel may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel... Bioy Casares's theme is not cosmic, but metaphysical: the body is imaginary, and we bow to the tyranny of a phantom. Love is a privileged perception, the most complete and total perception not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows." — Octavio Paz
"To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole." — Jorge Luis Borges
"By far Bioy Casares' most famous story, The Invention of Morel is still fairly obscure, despite being plugged (and strongly influenced) by his friend Borges, and supposedly being the basis for Last Year at Marienbad. I don't know that it is the perfect work of genius that Borges claimed it is, but it's certainly ahead of its time for 1940, and the ideas that fuel it are a grade above what Bioy Casares typically used in his work. Bioy Casares lacked Borges' intensity and his sheer inventiveness, but in The Invention of Morel, he used what he had well.
The nameless narrator is a fugitive who has escaped to a remote, abadoned island that has the stigma of disease over it. He sees himself as an outcast, and the story begins to play out a ultra-Robinson Crusoe scenario, as the narrator's links to reality appear to be severed in Wittgensteinian fashion. Will he lose his capacity for language? Will he lose his humanity? Yes, but this process is interrupted, then furthered by the sudden appearance on the island of a number of refined sophisticates, including the beautiful Faustina, whom he falls in love with. This despite the fact that none of them will acknowledge his presence. Other strangeness occurs, notably the presence of two moons and two suns in the sky.
It's impossible to go further without revealing the main conceit, which is held back for over half the story, but there's a pleasure to be had to it being revealed over the course of the story, so please imagine a tacky little spoiler warning here.
The narrator's inability to relate to the others seems to be symbolic. He could be dead and existing as a ghost similar to the narrator of Nabokov's The Eye (my favorite of his works, incidentally). His unspecified crime could have cast him out from the fabric of humanity and left him socially invisible. He could be imagining or recreating life on the island when he is in fact alone. But these are all wrong; the hints of anomie are, ultimately, a blind. The explanation is that he is not seeing people, not quite; what he is seeing is a projection of a recording made of past events, but a projection that has its own reality and is being superimposed on the island (hence the two sun and two moons). The leader of the group, Morel, concocted the invention, which will endlessly replay the week they spent on the island years ago. The downside is that at the time of projection, the force of the superimposed reality is so strong as to draw the life from those recorded and place it in the projected copies. Morel says, "When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges," and he means it literally: the recreation in reality of the past events supplants the current reality of their participants.
Bioy Casares combines two themes in unorthodox fashion. There is the circular time/eternal recurrence theme that so fascinated Borges. In 1941 he wrote:
In times of ascendancy, the conjecture that man's existence is a constant, unvarying quantity can sadden or irritate us; in times of decline (such as at the present), it holds out the assurance that no ignominy, no calamity, no dictator, can impoverish us.
And Bioy Casares evokes both the horror and the wonder that a week of reasonable existence with only minor troubles should become an eternal prison for its unknowing participants. The second theme is the transmigration of consciousness from the original person to the replica, which then plays out its part endlessly, never knowing that it has done it countless times before, nor that is not the original person--partly because it is. Bioy Casares uses a consciousness thought experiment decades before they came into vogue: if you were to create a copy of a person in an identical context, what would there be to differentiate the copy's consciousness from the original's? Since Bioy Casares adopts an emergent view of consciousness in the story (see Morel's quote above), the answer is that they cannot coexist. It takes the inversion of The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the picture and not the man is subject to time, and inverts it again, so that the playback of a recording of events takes on greater reality than the continued existence of the subjects.
The injection of ideas on consciousness is brief but it elevates the story from pure fantasy to the level of, say, Borges "Funes the Memorious." There, a man remembered everything and was crippled by it; here, people have the identical set of empirical situations played out for them, with no additional memory of it, while the metaphysical conditions change totally. Morel claims his machine creates nothing, only replicates what exists, but Bioy Casares makes it clear that the machine restructures reality. Bioy Casares also implies epiphenomenalism--the idea that internal experience supervenes on material reality without being able to affect it--since under the new conditions of Morel's machine, the participants are absolutely unable to acknowledge that anything has changed.
The basic concepts here were used in many, many science-fiction novels later on (though not so many beforehand, as far as I know); the story is unique for its alienation from the consciousness that persists on in the projections. In nearly all other stories of shifting metaphysics, the characters still obtain a working knowledge of the problem at hand, which ultimately provides their only satisfaction; here, Bioy Casares sets up a situation in which they cannot. Christopher Priest's The Affirmation provides the closest echo I can think of, and it too gets around the self-knowledge issue by giving the reader more information than any character has. The Invention of Morel plays utterly fair and is more successful in contradicting any conception of what the "consciousness" of its characters could be." - waggish
"'Dreamlike' is a disconcerting word when used to praise a work of art. "The dream has nothing to communicate to anyone else... and is for that reason totally uninteresting for other people" pronounced Freud, whose famous work on oneiromancy was based on his own dreams - perhaps thus proving his own point. Anyone who has been bored at a party by a detailed description of a weird/freaky/astonishing dream of utter banality will concur. "Dreamlike", when used to describe art, is usually shorthand for "boring and impenetrable but vague enough to perhaps seem artistic."
The invention of Morel, however, deserves the reclamation of "dreamlike" as a word of unambiguous praise. Adolfo Bioy Cesares is somewhat in the shadow of Borges, his great friend, in the South American literary canon. They collaborated on detective novels various other projects; Borges once called Bioy (as he was universally known), 15 years his younger, his "secret master" for helping to lead him from Baroque overwrought prose to a leaner, Classical style. Suzanne Jill Levine, in a perceptive introduction that pleasingly doesn't reveal any of the secrets of the narrative to follow, observes that Borges meant this in a double sense; the great Anglophile was well aware of the meaning of "master" as a designation for a young boy.
Borges, for his part, led Bioy away from an over-suffusion with Surrealism and Joycean stream-of-consciousness. In this volume, Borges' "prologue", really an introduction, is a defence of the fantastic in literature. Like the prefaces to his own collections, it is an understated mini-essay steeped in the familiar erudition.
Octavio Paz wrote of The invention of Morel that it "may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel" and Borges writes "to classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole", all of which has the ring of exaggeration, imprecision and hyperbole. But it is "perfect", in the sense that it is an exquisitely formed little tale with no superfluity of plot or language. The apparently slightly arbitrary features of the physical setting make perfect sense in the end. It has the property of the detective story, the sense that nothing is included that won't directly affect the plot - as Borges observes, "the odyssey of marvels he unfolds seems to have no possible explanation other than hallucination or symbolism, and he uses a single fantastic but not supernatural postulate to decipher it.".
Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad was modelled on Bioy's book, and the tale is suffused with loss and regret and a haunting beauty. According to Levine's introduction, a number of films and TV movies have been based on the book, surprising perhaps because of its emotional delicacy but unsurprising because of the major role film and the representation of reality come to play in the novella. Bioy's own fascination with the Twenties star Louise Brooks, whose pensive, bobbed image adorns the cover, informed the genesis of the story.
The story is of an unnamed narrator, a fugitive from Venezuela after some unnamed crime, who comes to an island in what seems to be the Indian Ocean. As the narrator's informant, an Italian rugseller in Calcutta, puts it "Chinese pirates do not go there, and the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute never calls at the island, because it is known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease, a fatal disease that attacks the outside of the body and then works inward." The disease is hardly mentioned for most of the rest of the book, only to play a crucial part in the neat way it all comes together.
On the island, the narrator finds he is not alone. A group of men and women - they seem like holidaymakers, but he is unsure - are also there. Hiding from view, he falls in love with one of the women, and tries to make his feeling known to her. Like Levine in her introduction, I am reluctant to say much more about the plot; too much, perhaps, has been given away already. Borges' comparison with The Turn of the Screw is apt - it is an eerie, brief masterpiece, of the right duration to make for a supremely vivid afternoon's reading." - Seamus Sweeney
"Set on a mysterious island, Bioy's novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious. (Appears in the season four episode Eggtown of LOST)
Review: I love that summary because it pretty much tells you nothing about the book! :) Or rather the novella. But let me tell you this is a very enjoyable little read. Enough so that even though I finished it rather quickly, I've still been thinking about it afterwards. It's the kind of read that's slightly unsettling and not with a lot of closure.
Our narrator is on an island by himself, hiding from the police. He isn't totally clear about where the island is, it seems there were people there previously who built some things on the island and then either disappeared or were killed by a sickness. He is trying to stay alive on the island and not succumb to any illnesses, when out of nowhere some people show up.
About the same time these people show up, our narrator observes other changes taking place on the island. For example, there are two suns. (he sometimes feels all the strange things he is experiencing is a result of his brain being fried) He also notices there is a very beautiful woman in the group and he falls in love with her even though they never speak.
What's going on on the island? Who are these people? Are they part of a plot from the police? Are they all really in an insane asylum? Maybe the island is actually purgatory. These are the theories considered before the very interesting revelation about what is truly going on on the island is revealed. I really enjoyed this little mysterious novella...I kept turning the pages wondering what was going on and as I said before I've been pondering it since.
Relationship to LOST
Where do I start? First of all with the obvious...the setting is a mysterious island in an unknown location. While our narrator is there, mysterious people show up. There is evidence of others having lived on the island before (the museum, swimming pool etc. like the Dharma stations) When pondering what is going on on the island he considers many theories fans have considered for LOST (insane asylum, purgatory, and aliens.) There's a huge collection of books left on the island. There is also a time element but I don't want to go too much into that for fear of spoiling the book. But perhaps what struck me more than anything was the following quote. I heard Darlton say that this year, instead of asking who is dead? We should be asking what does dead mean?
"I believe we lose immortality because we have not conquered our opposition to death; we keep insisting on the primary, rudimentary idea: that the whole body should be kept alive. We should seek to preserve only the part that has to do with consciousness."
I never would have heard of The Invention of Morel if I didn't watch LOST. So the goal of exposing people to cool books has been successful. I really enjoyed this one. You can buy it here." - myfriendamysblog.com
"The cover image that NYRB Classics chose to place on this book is a 1927 publicity still of film star Louise Brooks. It is both misleading and perfect. Louise Brooks apparently inspired this novel, but it’s a spoiler to say how. So I won’t.
In fact, I don’t really want to say much of anything about the book — it’s worth exploring with little to no foreknowledge. In what I have written below I have tried hard not to spoil this book for anyone. I think the best place to start, then, is the first paragraph. On a first read, it sounds like Bioy Casares is simply establishing the setting:
Today, on this island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time. I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water for a long time. The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again. As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph record. Afraid to go back to the museum to get my things, I ran away down through the ravine. Now I am in the lowlands at the southern part of the island, where the aquatic plants grow, where mosquitoes torment me, where I find myself waist-deep in dirty streams of sea water. And, what is worse, I realize that there was no need to run away at all. Those people did not come here on my account; I believe they did not even see me. But here I am, without provisions, trapped in the smallest, least habitable part of the island — the marshes that the sea floods once each week.
Astonishingly, this first paragraph is packed with plot elements. It’s a very different paragraph after having read the book. What we know now (well, we’ll know it in a few pages) is that our narrator is hiding out on a mysterious island. He is an escaped convict, nervous that these newcomers will turn him in to the authorities. Even when he figures out that they are not aware of his presence, he continues hiding out in the marshes. The part of the island he had to leave was much more pleasant. There was a museum, a chapel, a swimming pool. All were completed in 1924 but then abandoned, leaving these strange, lonely structures. Despite these strange, lonely structures, it doesn’t appear that anyone will be visiting the island. Indeed, that is why the narrator came here. When escaping, he was told,
“Chinese pirates do not go there, and the white ship of the Rockefeller Institute never calls at the island, because it is known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease, a fatal disease that attacks the ouside of the body and then works inward.”
Then why did these strange people, who look like snobbish vacationers, come? The plot thickens when our narrator falls in love with one of them. From a hidden vantage point, he watches an ambiguous woman as she silently watches the sunset. She hardly misses a night, and neither does he. Hating the hope it engenders, the narrator nevertheless thinks of ways he can meet the woman, whose name, he learns, is Faustine. But as he gains courage, he finds that something is keeping them apart, no matter how close he gets to her.
It’s a very lonely novel, and the loneliness is nearly driving the narrator mad.
I dreamed of Faustine. The dream was very sad, very touching. We were saying good-bye; they were coming to get hre; the ship was about to leave. Then we were alone, saying a romantic farewell. I cried during the dream and then woke up feeling miserable and desperate because Faustine was not there; my only consolation was that we had not concealed our love. I was afraid that Faustine had gone away while I was sleeping. I got up and looked around. The ship was gone. My sadness was profound: it made me decide to kill myself.
One of the best things about The Invention of Morel, though, is that even when we readers understand the nature of what is going on, Bioy Casares doesn’t stop there. Many lesser books stop with cleverness. In this one, the intelligent construct is only incidental to an even more intelligent examination of love, lust, loneliness — and the ambiguities of immortality." - mookseandgripes.com
Ask me what my favourite film is and I’ll no doubt respond with Last Year In Marienbad (1961), written by Alain Robbe-Grillet and directed by Alain Resnais. Its appeal is that no matter how many times I watch it I am never wholly satisfied. Not because it’s a poor work - it isn’t; rather it doesn’t force answers into tidy resolutions and the viewer is left to ponder long after. And with each viewing a new avenue of possibilities opens up, answers always just out of reach.
It was news to me, however, that Last Year In Marienbad was inspired by a novel and more surprising that the work in question was a slim volume of Latin American science fiction. The Invention Of Morel (1940) by Argentinian writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, who, it seems, lived in the literary shadow of countrymen and friend, Jorge Luis Borges. And with Borges providing a prologue (an introduction, really) it would appear he can’t even release a book without his friend casting that shadow.
The Invention Of Morel was Casares’ seventh novel and he believed it was the first true work of his literary career. In said prologue Borges states that “to classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole”. Octavio Paz echoed this when he said of the novel that it “may be described, without exaggeration, as a perfect novel.” With such heavyweights singing its praises and my own curiousity about how it inspired my favourite film I was eager to cast generic sci-fi prejudices aside and see just how perfect it was. As it turns out, rather close. But perfection in reading is subjective.
On the run from the police for a crime in his homeland, the narrator has wound up on a deserted island “known to be the focal point of a mysterious disease”. The novel forms his diary, the entries undated, from the moment when “a miracle” happens. That miracle is the arrival of other people to the island, people dressed as if “from another era”, who take up residence, having seemingly come from nowhere:
When I was finally able to sleep, it was very late. The music and the shouting woke me up a few hours later. I have not slept soundly since my escape; I am sure that if a ship, a plane, or any other form of transportation had arrived, I would have heard it. And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad.
Fearing being turned in to the authorities, the narrator stays out of their way, but soon becomes attracted to one of their party, the beautiful Faustine, who he observes from a distance, falling, like Casares did for Louise Brooks, who graces the cover, into a love unrequited:
She watches the sunset every afternoon; from my hiding place I watch her. Yesterday, and again today, i discovered that my nights and days wait for this hour. The woman, with a gypsy’s sensuality and a large, bright-colored scarf on her head, is a ridiculous figure. But I still feel (perhaps I only half believe this) that if she looked at me for a moment, spoke to me only once, I would derive from those simple acts the sort of stimulus a man obtains from friends, from relatives, and, most of all, from the woman he loves.
As the days pass events become more mysterious. Two suns take to the sky, followed by two moons. The people of the island talk about the same things over and over again and the narrator becomes braver in his love for Faustine, daring to present himself only to be ignored.
The Morel of the title is a nod to H. G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau and, like his literary forebear, is an unscrupulous scientist. But that’s not what’s important to our narrator, for he belives that Faustine is using Morel - and the other islanders, as he gets to know them - to repudiate him. The invention of the title, however, is best left unmentioned as its revelation serves the story well in answering all of the novel’s mysteries before leading on to the beautiful, but unnerving, coda.
While much of the novel is written as fact within diary entries, there are occasions to dispute the reality. The reader is given pause to wonder if all of this is in the narrator’s mind. After all, the island does bask in severe warmth and it’s not outwith the realms of possibility that severe heat stroke could be causing hallucinations:
From the marshlands with their churning waters I can see the top of the hill, and the people who have taken up residence in the museum. I suppose someone might attriute their mysterious appearance to the effect of last night’s heat on my brain. But there are no hallucinations or imaginings here: I know these people are real - at least as real as I am.
Like Last Year In Marienbad, that’s the beauty of such a narrative and in rereading The Invention Of Morel early passages that inform later events or knowledge enhance the reading experience, all the while leaving dubiety about the conclusion. Each interpretation is possible, just as they dismiss one another.
As far as the perfection quoted by Borges and Paz goes, I can see where they are coming from as Casares has produced an immensely readable novel that is the sum of its parts, with nothing extraneous lurking in the narrative. As a mystery it’s engaging, and all the threads come together in an intricate weave with no frayed lines to tug on. I’d be loathe to call it perfect, however, especially since I’m reading it in translation. But as a novel it’s light on the science, and prefers to linger on themes of immortality and love, within a temporal puzzle, twisting them until they are all the better for it." - booklit.com
"On the making of novels into films, there are two general schools of thought. Some feel that the film should be faithful to the original and are dismayed when it deviates significantly. Like sophomore literature students, they want the movie to be a faithful crib of the book. Most films, both art and popular, based on prior texts humbly meet this demand - Ragtime, The Shining, Diary of a Country Priest and any of the John Grisham films are just a few examples. Some films even promise a special allegiance by making the author's name a part of the title such as Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or Bram Stoker's Dracula. Of course, they are never completely faithful as the loyalist bitterly complain. The intrinsic differences between the two mediums makes duplication impossible. Others, 'the divergents' we'll call them, don't mind if the film deviates significantly or even radically from the original text, and they enjoy thinking about the differences another artist brings to the material. Blade Runner, Solaris and Apocalypse Now are all good examples of the divergent approach.
However, both the loyalists and the divergents would be baffled by the mysterious case of Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961). Hailed as a triumph of the modernist aesthetic, the film is formally severe and utterly modernist. Its characters are nameless and locked in a zone of their own, a zone that may not even be of this world. At a baroque resort, an unnamed man "X" tries to convince an unnamed woman "A" that they had an affair last year and agreed to meet at the resort and leave her current paramour "M". She doesn't remember him at all, but what he tells her has the power to create a past for her and to blend it into her present. They are all caught up in a surreal loop of disjointed time. The characters move like somnambulists through a hermetically sealed world that seems totally surreal. Reading the obsessively thorough screenplay, one gets the feeling that Alain Robbe-Grillet is striving to remain faithful to some unnamed rubric whose invisible influence shapes every move his characters make. One senses that the laborious screenplay is based on some prior text, whether novel or play or short story, yet no credit is given, either in the film or the published screenplay. Last Year at Marienbad presents itself as a pristine work of high modern art.
There is, in fact, a text behind the film - The Invention of Morel, a novella written twenty-one years earlier by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges' colleague of the Fantastic. The Argentinean masterpiece is about a fugitive, Morel, hiding out alone on a deserted island who one day awakens to discover that the island is miraculously filled with anachronistically dressed people "who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad". It turns out that Morel's invention is a diabolical holographic recording device that captures all of the senses in three dimensions. It is diabolical because it destroys its subject in the recording process, rotting the skin and flesh off of its bones, thus gruesomely confirming the native fear of being photographed and also, perhaps, warning of the dangers of art holding up a mirror to nature.
Last Year at Marienbad buries its association with its "low brow" science fiction text; nevertheless, they are relatives all the same. I discovered the kinship by accident on the dust jacket of Casares' A Plan for Escape, a novel written in the early 1940's, which also bears an interesting affinity with Last Year at Marienbad. Dust jackets of novels are occasionally mistaken, but I was able to confirm the information by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica which states that "The novel formed the basis for Alain Robbe-Grillet's film script for Last Year at Marienbad". The high modernist masterpiece is "outed" as a postmodern, science fiction film.
Though it is cloaked in formal solipsism, Last Year at Marienbad does more than secretly allude to The Invention of Morel, though allusions abound in what turns out to be a veritable tangle of texts, a Borgean labyrinth of a library. Borges points out in his prologue to the novella that "the title alludes filially to another island inventor, Moreau". The principal female figure in Morel is Faustine, alluding to the devilish pact art inevitably makes with nature. Interestingly, Casares claims that Faustine was inspired by the silent screen star, Louise Brooks. Unlike Marienbad, another related text that will serve as a useful contrast in our discussion of remakes and intertextualiy is Man Facing Southeast, an Argentinean film that flies its flag of loyalty to Casares high through an explicit use of allusion. Rantes, patient number thirty-three at a mental hospital, explains that he is a holographic being from outer space. In order to comprehend him, Dennis, the skeptical psychiatrist, reads a passage from Morel in which the holo-recorder/projector is discussed. As a fellow Argentine, Subiela (director of the film) is proud to be associated with Casares and he pays suitable tribute to his inspiration whereas Robbe-Grillet and Resnais arrogantly disassociate their work from the sci-fi, Latino source. They even refuse subtle allusion, and the work is diminished as a result.
Understanding that "A" and "M", and perhaps "X", in Marienbad are all holographs would enrich our enjoyment of an otherwise incomprehensible film. "A", the woman, and "M", her husband, are cycling endlessly in a film that never ends. "X" offers her a way to freedom. Though he also seems strangely caught in their world, he is able to alter the scenarios through the power of suggestion. Maybe he is also a holograph and none of them can leave the resort, but he has at least achieved some self-awareness of what they all are. Maybe like the nameless narrator of Morel, he has edited the film to his own liking and inserted himself as a character. Though Marienbad is substantially different from Morel, knowing about the relationship between the two enriches Marienbad's meditation on the relationship between art and nature. Without Morel, Marienbad is mostly an exercise in formalism; however, with the intertextual juxtaposition of the two, it becomes another, different work. It becomes an early false reality film, perhaps the first. Beginning as a mere trickle with The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero, we now have a flood of these ontological vertigo films - Total Recall, Dark City, The Matrix, Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, The Truman Show and the on-going holo-deck of the various neo-Star Treks just to name a few. In our digital times where CGI billboards pop up in Times Square, false reality and false people have become a global obsession.
So why do Robbe-Grille and Resnais hide the fact that Marienbad is a divergent film version of Morel? Is it because they are Eurocentrics who think art should have nothing to do with the genre of science fiction/horror even though, admittedly, Morel is certainly more literary than an example of genre fiction? Mostly though, Marienbad, by keeping itself textually pure, remains a shrine to modernism. As a last dying gasp of modernism, it is in desperate denial regarding its true intertextual nature.
Without The Invention of Morel, Marienbad is merely surreal art for art's sake. However the film does provide clues that "A", "M" and "X" are simulacrum and not real people. The play at the beginning of the film slavishly foretells the fates of the protagonists, and "X"'s endless monologue is spoken by both the play actor and "X", their voices intentionally blended. All of the paintings in the hotel are mimetic of the resort itself. As they discuss the sculptures in the garden, we suspect that "X" and "A" are sculptures themselves. Then there are the many time dysfunctions - sudden changes in chronology signaled only by the placement of characters and their costume changes. The effect of all these changes is mostly irrelevant because nothing ever really changes at the resort. The essential nature and meaning of the film is utterly dependent on its hidden relationship with Morel, so its formalistic elitism is false. Nevertheless, and this is the beautiful irony of intertextuality, once its indebtedness is acknowledged, Marienbad can go on to have an independent artistic life of its own. It, after all, has very little in common with Morel.
Marienbad reveals in and of itself an ambivalent, dual attitude regarding the relationship of art to life. On the one hand, the film itself presents itself as a work of art that is in agreement with the modernist credo expressed well by poet William Carlos Williams in his landmark 1923 collection of poetry, Spring and All:
the illusion once dispensed with, painting has this problem before it: to replace not the forms but the reality of experience with its own. now works of art cannot be left in this category of France's "lie," they must be real, not "realism" but reality itself.It is not a matter of "representation" much may be represented actually, but of separate existence.
Marienbad dwells on the "separate existence" of its characters. Cinematically, it is a study of the separate reality of its own existence, eschewing the conventions of realism as being false illusion. By its own temporal discontinuity, its nameless characters and hermetically-sealed set, it demands that we accept it as reality itself rather than as a faithful and ultimately illusory representation of reality. Marienbad says by its construction that art is a reality added to reality and not a copy of reality. On the other hand, within the holographic reality, the characters in the theatrical performance that opens the film represent the characters of the film itself. Because the action of the film comes after the play, however, "A" and "X" seem to be imitating the play rather than the other way around. Even their body language is nearly as formal and architectural as the characters in the play. Play and film exist in a Möbius-style feedback loop, and it is impossible to determine which imitates which. Thus, though the film presents itself as non-representational, within itself it presents a story of artifice holding a mirror up to nature and vice versa (not only in the play but in the card game and the various paintings and sculptures around the resort). "X" and "A", however, seem unaware of the mimetic nature of their activities. Though architecturally beautiful, the world of Marienbad is pure nonsense, chaotic and absurd by the intentional design of its makers. Robbe-Grillet and Resnais are comfortable in the chaos of the a-historical. For them the world does not make sense, so neither should art. It seems they have held a mirror up to nature after all.
Borges and Casares are more progressive than Robbe-Grillet and Resnais in their comfort with intertextuality, but I believe they are extremely traditional in their view of false realities and false people. I believe this in spite of their elegant and advanced ontological play, and play they did. Early in their careers they wrote a brilliant book of detective stories called Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi, and published it under the pen name, H. Bustos Domecq. A false biographical outline of Dr. Honorio Bustos Domecq was attached, allegedly written by schoolteacher, Miss Adelma Badoglio. A flowery forward is provided by Gervasio Montenegro who later turns out to be a fictional character in one of the stories and not just any fictional character, but an anti-Semite who is ridiculed by the jailbird detective throughout the interlocking six stories. Casares himself is known to most well read North Americans only as a fictional character in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," a story by Borges, in which the narrator and Casares discover volume eleven of an encyclopedia of a nonexistent country. Nevertheless, their play was always guided by a strict conservative logic of their own.
In speaking of Casares we must speak of Borges as well. Poor Casares. Not only was he snubbed by our French filmmakers, he was fated to live and die (b. Sept. 15, 1914 - d. March 8, 1999) in the shadow of his more famous colleague. However, as Borges himself once said, "Fame is a form - perhaps the worse form - of incomprehension". He said this, as it happens, in one of his most brilliant stories on the subject of simulacrum and intertextuality, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," an amusing tale that illustrates the old Heraclitus dictum transmuted to literature - no one can read the same book twice. Though most of his fiction is out of print in English, Casares does not deserve his marginalization, for he gives us everything Borges gives us and more. Along with the Borgean logical puzzles and metaphysical, ontological meditations, Casares gives us excellent psychological characterizations (something lacking in Borges' work) and social/political involvement. His typical narrator is not detached and meticulous as in Borges. More like Philip K. Dick, (but with a much better grasp of literary prose) his favorite narrator is desperate and paranoid and on the verge of a mental breakdown. The strangeness is not just in the observed but in the observer. It is truly a mystery to me (and a Borgean irony as well) why Borges was blessed by the gods of canonicity and Casares was not.
Borges was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer, Berkley and Hume by way of his father's library, and much of his fiction plays with the illusory nature of the phenomenal world as taught by those philosophers; nevertheless, Borges and Casares are confident that "all pages, all words, predicate the universe" and not the other way around. They have faith in the essential solidity of the phenomenal world, and their false realities work on the theory of Aristotelian displacement and a Catholic transubstantiation of life by art. This is what happens in Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and "The Mirror and the Mask."
In The Invention of Morel, the holographic machine destroys everything it records. Formalistically, in other words, on internal evidences alone, the situation is horrifying with many interesting philosophical implications. Perhaps, metaphorically, the story represents the rejection of realistic representation as a value and goal of art. It harks back to the timeless theme of star-crossed lovers. It implies, (an ancient religious theme) that the price of immortality is always death. And of course, it provides the satisfaction that only fiction can provide - an explanation of the unexplainable which is perhaps one of the chief pleasures of reading.
The first text behind Morel is the collective film work of Louise Brooks. Here is the relevant exchange between Sergio Wolf and Casares in a July 1995 interview:
Question: You said that the inspiration for La invención de Morel came to you, at least partially, from the vanishing of Louise Brooks from the movies. What happened with you and Louise Brooks?
Adolfo Bioy Casares: I was deeply in love with her. I didn't have any luck, because she disappeared quickly. She went to Europe, she made a film with Pabst, and then I didn't like her so much as when she was in Hollywood. And then, she vanished too early from the movies.
Question: Could she be seen as one of the characters in La invención de Morel?
Adolfo Bioy Casares: Yes, she would be Faustine. (qt. in Louise Brooks)
Knowing that Morel is in part a story about a real person's love for a screen presence changes the nature of the text and our relationship to it. The novella becomes a meditation on our relationship with the art of cinema, its bestowal of seeming immortality on its stars and the dialectic of our own fulfillment and loss.
In the dark of the theater all of our wishes are fulfilled. However, despite our materiality and the ephemeral flickering of illusion before us, there in the dark we feel ourselves to be mere ghosts, lesser beings in the presence of screen grandeur. We know we matter less as real brings than the fictional beings before us. Casares captures these feelings beautifully:
Now I understand why novelists write about ghosts that weep and wail. The dead remain in the midst of the living... I was horrified that Faustine, who was so close to me, actually might be on another planet; but I am dead, I am out of reach, I thought.
Remember, Faustine is holographic, but her Louise Brooks-like presence is so much larger than life that the living narrator concludes that he must be dead. Not only does the nature of the text itself change, but our relationship with Casares' novella is also changed by the Brooks/Faustine paring. Many of us have been in love with the artificial constructs of popular culture. This shared experience with the narrator makes the Morel text feel less foreign to us; with the addition of the Brooks text, we become "simpatico" with the narrator and understand his final immolation when he submits himself to Morel's machine. How many young people empty themselves to become one with their screen idol?
The relationship with Morel to The Island of Dr. Moreau does something else to the novella. Morel becomes, in his dialectic with Well's mad scientist, a violator of nature through his hubris. Dr. Moreau attempts to create a higher being, but merely creates sad perversities, parodies of both human and animal. Intertextually, Morel becomes a dire warning of the vivi-sectional splicing of the artificial and the real, a confusion we now all live with on a daily basis. In contrast to Robbe-Grillet, Casares is not comfortable with putting art first and demanding that life follow. His tale tries to tell us that it is not wise to confuse the artificial and the real, that it is not wise to prefer artifice over nature. At the end of the novel, the narrator chooses to submit himself to Morel's deadly machine, splicing himself into the holographic movie in hopes of living eternally with Faustine. Pathetically, he concludes his diary:
My soul has not yet passed to the image; if it had, I would have died, I (perhaps) would no longer see Faustine, and would be with her in a vision that no one can ever destroy.
Like the narrator, for many of us now, artificial images come before reality. For example, upon hearing that I was from Memphis, an adult professional man told me enthusiastically, "I've always wanted to visit Memphis. I want to tour the places where John Grisham's movies were made." A young man off-road cycling with a friend of mine, paused at the top of a ridge to catch his breath and say, "This is almost as good as Nintendo." Reality is not what it used to be or rather our relationship to it has become more tenuous. This basic feeling with which many of us live daily is expressed in the increasing catalogue of ontological vertigo films of which Last Year at Marienbad may be the first in line because of its now-revealed relationship with The Invention of Morel.
Standing alone, The Invention of Morel, is a brilliantly conceived and executed horror tale, but when considered with its prior texts of Louise Brooks and Dr. Moreau, it gives us a warning - if you go to the movies too often, you may never come back. Your own life may become a fiction, you could become a nameless character wandering forever in the present tense, alive or dead one cannot be sure." - Thomas Beltzer
Adolfo Bioy Casares, Asleep in the Sun, Trans. by Suzanne Jill Levine (NYRB Classics, 2004)
"Lucio, a normal man in a normal (nosy) city neighborhood with normal problems with his wife (not the easiest person to get along with) and family and job (he lost it) finds he has a much bigger problem: his wife is a dog. At first, it doesn't seem like such a problem, because the German shepherd inhabiting his wife's body is actually a good deal more agreeable than his wife herself, now occupying the body of the same German shepherd in a mental hospital run by scientists who, it appears, have designs on the whole neighborhood. But then Lucio has a sense, however confused, of what's right, which is an even bigger problem yet.
Asleep in the Sun is the great work of the Argentine master Adolfo Bioy Casares's later years. Like his legendary Invention of Morel, it is an intoxicating mixture of fantasy, sly humor, and menace. Whether read as a fable of modern politics, a meditation on the elusive parameters of the self, or a most unusual love story, Bioy's book is an almost scarily perfect comic turn, as well as a pure delight."
"Its broader themes of compatibility and well-being, and man's attachment to place and routine, connect it with such older twentieth-century masterworks as Mann's The Magic Mountain." — Choice
"A sweet, increasingly surreal fable... The fantastic events seem less momentous than the almost saintly likeableness of Lucio, one of those people whom things happen to with a cockeyed vengeance. Levine's slangy, salt-of-the-earth translation helps to make this shapely and appealing." — Kirkus Reviews
"In a seriocomic saga of a man imprisoned by himself and the machinations of the world, a Buenos Aires watchmaker is talked into institutionalizing his wife because she can't decide what sort of dog she wants. "Casares's black comedy is a witty and ironic comment on our desires and the social structures we have created,'' determined PW" — Publishers Weekly
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